Prosecutor questions jury pool about graphic photos, domestic violence, biases in Lawrence murder trial

photo by: Sara Shepherd/Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Dec. 28, 2018, Rontarus Washington Jr., left, confers with appointed attorney Adam Hall during a motions hearing in Douglas County District Court.

Into the second day of jury selection in a murder trial, prosecutor C.J. Rieg began to question potential jurors about their biases, views on the criminal justice system, personal experiences and ability to tolerate graphic imagery.

The jury will hear the state’s case against Rontarus Washington Jr., 23. He is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the Nov. 7, 2014 death of 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso.

Mosso was found stabbed and bludgeoned to death in the bathroom of her apartment at 1727 W. 24th St. on Nov. 9, 2014, after her estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, now 31, and her cousin, Olivia Flores Guzman, separately reported her missing.

photo by: Contributed photos

Photos of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, provided by the Lawrence Police Department.

Fairly early into her questions to a panel of 45 possible jurors Tuesday afternoon, she asked whether any of them knew they “didn’t have the stomach for” graphic crime scene photos or testimony from coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell. None said it would be an issue.

Cantu Ruiz had given Mosso the keys to the apartment and car the couple shared and moved to Manhattan on the day of her death, according to police reports in the case file. At a preliminary hearing in the case, Cantu Ruiz testified that their marriage was “bad because she had a relationship with another guy,” the Journal-World reported in 2015.

Cantu Ruiz had been arrested that March on suspicion of domestic battery against Altamirano Mosso, according to court documents. In her questioning Tuesday, Rieg asked potential jurors whether they would be able to look beyond that arrest, or if it would make anyone “jump right to the husband.”

Rieg also asked about whether any of the jurors think you can know whether someone committed a crime based on their appearance, background, socio-economic status or race. She asked if any of them thought they “would not be able to convict a young African American man,” or if they might have “too many feelings” about the victim or her family to rule fairly.

She asked of the jurors whether any of them would not be able to come to a verdict if a case was missing — or, alternatively, was in part based upon — an element such as DNA evidence, fingerprints, trace evidence, an eyewitness, phone analysis, a confession, footwear and blood spatter analysis.

Washington lived in an apartment on the same floor as Mosso. The Journal-World has previously reported about DNA evidence that could link Washington to the crime, and his fingerprint that police said was discovered on the toilet tank lid.

Police wrote in the affidavit supporting Washington’s arrest that he told them he had entered the apartment that night looking for money, saw Mosso’s body and left without touching anything. Allegations in an affidavit have not been proved in court.

Rieg said the murder occurred a long time ago, and used analogies to illustrate how someone’s memories might fade over five years. She said the time that has passed since the murder should not be held against Washington, and that the timing could not be explained to jurors until after the case is resolved.

None of the potential jurors said they had strong opinions about any issues Rieg presented that they thought would make them unable to rule fairly in the case, and none was familiar with any of the witnesses Rieg mentioned to the point that they would not be able to analyze their testimony the same way they would anyone else’s.

Jury selection will continue Wednesday morning. A few dozen potential jurors will return, along with the panel of 45 who answered Rieg’s questions Tuesday.

The trial is scheduled to last through Sept. 27, and the three-week commitment has added hardship for many of the potential jurors.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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Related coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. trial

Day 1 — Sept. 9, 2019: Jury selection begins in trial for 2014 Lawrence murder

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